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Calgary paramedics experiencing burnout as shifts go unfilled

Calgary paramedics are already feeling the burnout of higher call volumes, but a lack of available workers has left dozens of shifts vacant over the holidays and into the first week of the new year.

According to screenshots of the Alberta Health Services (AHS) employee portal obtained by CTV News, there were 64 vacant paramedic shifts in the Calgary Zone on Christmas Day.

Another 53 shifts also went vacant on New Year’s Eve. That means that with two paramedics per ambulance, the shortfall resulted in 20 fewer EMS units.

The large void in the roster has prompted some paramedics to speak out. One paramedic agreed to speak with CTV News, only if their identity was protected due to concerns about losing their job.

“There were countless vacancies on New Year’s Eve,” the paramedic said, pointing to a memo that was sent out by AHS acknowledging that the high demand of calls would be handled with extra staff.

“They said they were going to staff all of the ambulances, they were bringing in extra over time, extra supervisors working to clear crews from the hospitals, but in the lead up to New Year’s Eve, they could barely staff the ambulances they have regularly scheduled, they got no interest in their extra ambulances, no one extra came to work.”

The paramedic also claimed that AHS deleted ambulances from its schedule in an attempt to make it look like there were no vacancies on the roster.

“So you wouldn’t have known by looking at our staffing list that those ambulances were even vacant and they just dropped the number to zero,” the paramedic said.

“They’ll take one paramedic from one ambulance, another paramedic from another ambulance, they’ll put them together even though they never really worked together before and they’ll just call that OK. So rather than dropping two ambulances, at least we have one. That’s a frequent occurrence.”

With an increase in vacancies, another staff memo circulated by AHS on Dec. 28 was seeking paramedics across the province to temporarily relocate to northern Alberta to address staff shortages there.

AHS RESPONDS

In a statement to CTV News, Alberta Health Services (AHS) insists that “patients in the Calgary zone who need EMS care will continue to receive it” and that work is continuing to fill as many vacant shifts as possible.

“Staff vacancy numbers change rapidly as staff pick up shifts and it is expected that vacant shift numbers for any particular day may decline leading up to the shift itself,” read the statement.

“Vacant shifts are continually assessed in real time and reported on twice daily. Unfilled shifts are available for overtime and EMS is also working on sustainable support programs to help keep staff at work and make sure injured workers can come back as soon as reasonably possible.”

The statement goes on to say that EMS shifts support both emergency response and non-emergency units, including inter-facility transfer units, all of which may be reflected in vacant shift numbers.

AHS also notes that it will continue work to recruit graduates of paramedic programs both across Canada and internationally.

‘PEOPLE STRUGGLING EVERY DAY’: RETIRED PARAMEDIC

Don Sharpe worked as an advanced care paramedic for more than four decades before retiring in 2022, but says he’s never seen burnout and such increased strain on Alberta’s ambulance operators.

“Managers are supposed to look after staffing, training and maintenance, but EMS failed all of those,” he said.

Sharpe said he regularly keeps in touch with current paramedics and has friends that are still working.

“I get calls every week, two or three of them from paramedics who are literally at the end of their rope, there’s people struggling every day, they’re overworked, they’re not treated very well,” Sharpe said.

“You have crews that come to work as emergency paramedics, they end up sitting in the hallways for hours that creates a moral injury. They end up flexing out of their small rural communities and into the city to do calls as they’re leaving with transfers or to do calls in another location.”

MORE THAN 80,000 MISSED HOURS

According to another AHS document obtained by CTV News, there were 80,620 vacant hours for shifts from Jan. 1, 2023 to Oct. 27, 2023.

On top of the growing number of vacancies, another issue comes with increasing retirements due to burnout and employees transitioning from full-time to part-time or casual contracts.

Another AHS document shows there were 187 regular full-time EMS jobs lost and downgraded to casual from October 2022 to August 2023.

This marks an increase from 2021 to 2022 when 63 full-time paramedics transitioned to working part-time and 165 switched to flex contracts.

In 2014, just four full-time paramedics in Alberta dropped down to part-time roles, while 20 switched to casual capacity.

Luanne Metz, NDP MLA for Calgary Varsity, is a long-time neurologist and medical researcher who calls these types of shortages an “extreme failure” on the part of Alberta’s UCP government.

“We’ve been looking at numbers almost as bad as this throughout the whole last year,” she said.

“It really concerns me that there’s no progress over two years and the other thing is that we know that our paramedics are getting more and more burned out and so the number of shifts that actually do get picked up is very likely to be falling off because of more and more are cutting back to becoming casual or part time because they can’t take the stress of the job anymore.”

Sharpe echoed these comments and pointed to an AHS recommendation of EMS advisory providers last year for private care providers to start moving urgent patients into hospital, which never came to fruition.

“That was supposed to be in place in June, it’s now after Christmas and AHS just sent out a memo saying yeah, we’re still working on this,” he said.

“You know, there are good people out there, private providers who can start moving non emergency patients from the urgent cares in the small towns to the city right now.”

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